30 Years Later, Boston-Spawned Pixies Still Won't Take Credit For Changing Guitar Rock

Pixies (Courtesy)
Pixies (Courtesy)

Grunge — or whatever you want to call the edgy, grinding, guitar-driven early ‘90s alt-rock — would have happened without the Pixies. As the ‘80s came to a close, something raw began to snarl out in Seattle, and elsewhere.

But some mighty seeds were sown by a four-piece band out of Boston, which came to town from western Massachusetts.

“Music moves forward. It was the right combination of people to make that kind of music with different influences,” Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago said in a phone interview this week, from his Los Angeles home. “We’re one of the signposts, like Sonic Youth and Husker Du, whom we were influenced by.”

Pixies were Black Francis, Santiago, drummer David Lovering and bassist Kim Deal. (Deal left long ago; she was replaced by Kim Shattuck; the new bassist-singer is Paz Lenchantin.) The band released “Come on Pilgrim,” their eight-track mini-album in 1987 and “Surfer Rosa,” their first LP, the following year.

Now, for the 30th anniversary, they have been combined into several artistic and well-annotated LP/CD packages called “Come On Pilgrim … It’s Surfer Rosa.” Released Friday, the reissue also includes a previously unreleased 1986 concert broadcast on radio.

Pixies — a band their future pal David Bowie once referred to as “the psychotic Beatles” — inadvertently laid some important groundwork as they carved out an improbably long-lasting career in rock.

You need go no further than the famous quote from Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, talking to Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 1994 about recording their breakthrough album “Nevermind”: "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

Years later, Pixies lead singer-songwriter-guitarist Black Francis told Reuters: “I’ll admit it — if Kurt Cobain ‘fessed up to it, f--- it, I’ll agree with it, you ripped us off.” Knowing Black Francis, whose real name is Charles Thompson IV, a bit, I’m guessing he said that with a smile.

Like Ramones and punk rock before them, Pixies became an iconic, driving force of a movement or genre they didn’t intentionally create.

“We were solidifying a style and we knew we had a niche,” Santiago said of that time period. “We had our own shtick going. The next record after that [‘Doolittle’], that’s when I thought we’re going to be a stepping stone to other bands, that we are going to influence other bands. With ‘Doolittle’ we refined it, polished it up a little bit with pre-production. We didn’t do that as much with ‘Surfer Rosa ‘and ‘Come on Pilgrim’.”

In 1988, Pixies' "Surfer Rosa" was named album of the year in two British music weeklies, Sounds and Melody Maker. Sounds opined Pixies "are a rock 'n' roll band without parallel at the moment, reaching some kind of dark heart while teetering deliciously on the edge of a precarious cliff of self-deprecating comedy.”

Pixies mastered the idea of a full-thrust, drop-back, then even-more-raging climax. There was a lot of violence and morbidity in Thompson's songs, but also tongue-in-cheek humor and a good deal of cryptic thought. There was substantial hardcore-inspired frenzy in the music, but also surf music and pure pop and skewed love songs, as well.

“I like that word: humor,” said Santiago. “Because we don’t go into the studio and go [in a snarling voice] ‘Yeah, f--- you! We nailed it!’ That was never the litmus test for any song we had. We just go in there and go that’s f------ hilarious. It’s more like when we laugh or when we smile — that means it’s right, it’s entertaining. We’re a funny band in that sense. It’s more like we always look for some kind of lift, not anger. We never want to scare anyone or make anyone sad. We want people to be happy – even though the songs aren’t.”

These were some of my thoughts, reviewing 30 years ago at the Paradise club in Boston: They showed no signs of being affected by early success and maintained the songwriting/arrangement quality, increasing their live intensity. Pixies were a no-image/high-intensity band.

Theirs was the art of noise, the joy of noise, and the love of pop. Pixies offered bite-size chunks of punk-pop bliss: anguished, but shimmering, nuggets rooted in some twisted, B-movie, bloody-minded subconscious and unblemished by commercial concerns. And that, in his lyrics, Black Francis showed a penchant for graphic themes and violent imagery.

When I asked Francis about it in 1989, he name-checked the massively aggressive and near-nihilistic, underground Chicago band Big Black as an influence. (Big Black’s Steve Albini later produced “Surfer Rosa” and later did the same for Nirvana’s “In Utero.”

“I like that stuff fine,” Francis said of Big Black, “but ours is more vague and — I hate to use the word poetic — but sort of musty-poetry-weirdo-abstract. … I am the Ernest Hemingway of indie rock. If I could keep them short and brief and impactful and have them make linear sense then I would be a genius, but I'm not. So, I'm a surrealist.”

Francis could wail and howl as if rising up from hell, but without sinking into heavy metal parody. On stage, he didn’t act anything out, or, for that matter, treat any song as more or less important than the last. It's was all equalized — a visceral release that was, by definition, ephemeral.

The re-released records were successful in the indie world, but with their second full-length album, “Doolittle,” they exploded. But there was intra-band tension, a 1993 breakup — with Black Francis establishing a smaller-scale offshoot career as Frank Black — and then a 2004 reunion — new music and smashing world tours.

Who was influenced by Pixies? You can count Smashing Pumpkins, Wolf Alice, Mudhoney, PJ Harvey, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Strokes and Modest Mouse, to name a handful. Early Radiohead was another one. “The reason we don't use as much guitar now is there are only a handful of Pixies albums. You can't keep copying them,” guitarist Jonny Greenwood said on British television in 2001.

Asked if he takes pride in all that influencing, Santiago said, “Honestly, if there’s little bit of pride in it, it’s so little because we got influenced by other people. We’re just [part of] the vernacular now. People are very influenced by Radiohead and they went on to do their own stuff and you got that genre going on now.

“If anything, we inspired people to start a band. That’s what I’m more proud of, someone right now, girls and guys in the garage bashing it out. And if they’re listening to Pixies, kudos. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the Nirvana album Steve Albini produced. We regret the error.


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Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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